His father and mother stand at the window. He joins them and watches a bear in the rain make its way along the cut line. It raises its head and looks toward the house. I’ll get the rifle, his father says. The bear approaches the house and claws at the frame around the window and then presses a wet snout against glass and causes a diagonal, hairline crack. Jesus, his father says as the bear’s other paw digs at the sill. The boy steps back until he feels the heat of the stove. His father raises the rifle and aims it at the bear through the window, but doesn’t fire.
The bear continues to lick the glass, its wide pink tongue licks faster and muddies it. The boy wonders what the bear finds so appealing. Sap? The bodies of dead insects? Something dust-laden with a spoiled tang? Don’t you— his father says and steadies the rifle against his shoulder. His mother steps back too and puts her arm around his shoulder and holds him.
None of them take their eyes off the bear as it licks even faster now, first one corner and then another. The boy puts his fingers in his ears, waits for the rifle blast, but can’t look away. From this distance, his father wouldn’t miss. The glass cracks and pops as the bear’s tongue slows and licks mostly at the bottom right corner. There is a rubbing sound like when his mother cleans the window. The rain subsides but the bear’s snout daubs and sniffs every corner of the glass.
The boy closes his eyes for a mere second or so but when he opens them again the bear is gone. His father doesn’t lower the rifle right away but continues to aim it at the empty window. The glass is covered with tongue marks and nose prints. It’s cracked in several places.
The next morning his mother is up early cleaning the window. When the boy wakes, the glass gleams on both sides and through it he can see clearly the three willows near the creek from where the bear emerged, and behind them birch, pine and spruce trees fill out creek bed. None of it looks menacing or fearful. Many bears have come that way but none had stopped at this window before.
He’ll never forget that pink tongue flattened against glass. The terrifying noises it made. But the bear stopped licking just when it seemed it would burst right into the house. Perhaps it understood the rifle aimed at it or just had gotten all it wanted off the glass. Before yesterday fear was something to hurry past in a book his mother might read to him, but now it had a certainty that would stay with him. Until the bear had licked the window he’d never known that his parents felt it too.
Robert Hilles lives on Salt Spring Island and has won the Governor General’s Award for Poetry for Cantos From A Small Room and his novel, Raising of Voices, won George Bugnet Award. His second novel, A Gradual Ruin, was published by Doubleday Canada and now is in paperback. His books have also been shortlisted for The Milton Acorn People’s Poetry Prize, The W.O. Mitchell/City of Calgary Prize, The Stephan Stephansson Award, and The Howard O’Hagan Award. He has published fifteen books of poetry, three works of fiction and two non-fiction books (Kissing the Smoke and Calling the Wild). His latest poetry books are Partake (2010) and Time Lapse (2012). He is working on a short story collection called, A Hint of Salt. His next poetry collection, Woven, will appear in 2017. He blogs at https://roberthilles.wordpress.com/ and you can see him read here https://www.youtube.com/user/hillesr.
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